Musical intervals and relative pitch: frequency resolution, not interval resolution, is special.

Josh H. McDermott, Michael V. Keebler, Christophe Micheyl, Andrew J. Oxenham

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38 Scopus citations


Pitch intervals are central to most musical systems, which utilize pitch at the expense of other acoustic dimensions. It seemed plausible that pitch might uniquely permit precise perception of the interval separating two sounds, as this could help explain its importance in music. To explore this notion, a simple discrimination task was used to measure the precision of interval perception for the auditory dimensions of pitch, brightness, and loudness. Interval thresholds were then expressed in units of just-noticeable differences for each dimension, to enable comparison across dimensions. Contrary to expectation, when expressed in these common units, interval acuity was actually worse for pitch than for loudness or brightness. This likely indicates that the perceptual dimension of pitch is unusual not for interval perception per se, but rather for the basic frequency resolution it supports. The ubiquity of pitch in music may be due in part to this fine-grained basic resolution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1943-1951
Number of pages9
JournalThe Journal of the Acoustical Society of America
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2010

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The work was supported by National Institutes of Health Grant No. R01 DC 05216. We thank Ivan Martino for help running the experiments, Ed Burns for helpful discussions, and Evelina Fedorenko, Chris Plack, Lauren Stewart, and two reviewers for comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript.


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